Oura Catholic Church in Nagasaki

Oura Catholic Church in Nagasaki - Photo by monde dane 2006 (Click on image for more photos)

It is sometimes hard for Westerners to understand how Japanese people think or why they behave the way they do, and vice-versa.

What’s the reason for this culture gap between the Japanese and the West?

There are different theories; most are reasonable up to a point.

  • Shimaguni konjo — Japanese are different because they are an island nation.
  • Rice Culture — Japanese are different because the culture is based on a system of communal rice cultivation.
  • Language — Japanese are different because their spoken language has only a loose connection to the Altaic language group that includes such diverse languages as Turkish, Mongol and Korean.
  • Independence — Japanese are different because between the 5th Century Yamato invasion and the US occupation in 1945, Japan was never colonized, occupied, or invaded by a foreign power (though the Mongols did try in the late 13th century).
  • Religion — Japanese are different because of their unique combination of Shintoism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
  • Education — Japanese are different because of the stress on group behavior and the on memorization that is necessary to master 1,945 characters in 12 years.
  • Brain Gap — One Japanese professor believes he and his countrymen are different because they have brains that function differently from other members of the human race.
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    Like most riddles, there’s more than one answer. Probably all but one of them contributes to making up the Japanese character.My choice for the biggest single reason was religion. This surprised me for two reasons; I thought of myself as having no religion and all the Japanese I know say they are mushukyo (areligious). I was never baptized, never a member of a church and never read the Bible, but in Japan I started saying I was culturally Protestant Christian because this seemed to best explain the difference in thinking and values.

    How can religion be the main cause for difference cultural differences between two people who both claim to have no religion? I’m obviously no authority on the subject, but it seems to me that religion has several functions in any society that could explain this.

  • SPIRITUAL – Why were we born? What happens when we die?
  • CEREMONIAL – Weddings – births – funerals
  • MORAL – Right and wrong – the purpose of life – philosophy
  • SOCIAL – Community – counseling – education
    In Japan these functions have been shared by Buddhism, Shintoism and Confucianism. Buddhism and Shintoism perform the the spiritual function, Shintoism takes care of birth and marriage ceremonies and Buddhism is for funerals. Social and moral issues are mostly defined by Confucianism and managed by the village, school and company.
    In the west all these functions were the realm of the church for nearly two millennium.
    Though there is a community of devout Christians in Japan, most Japanese have only a vague idea of what Christianity is – even though many prefer mock-Christian weddings and the crucifix is a common fashion accessory. So, I try my best to explain it to them.

    I start by telling them that the modern Western concepts of capitalism and democracy evolved from Christian philosophy and ultimately protestant ethics.

    Being an American means being part of a culture with institutions and values largely defined by Protestant Christian philosophy. People of other religions or, like me, of no religion, share such Christian inspired values as the importance of the individual, equal opportunity, a sense of fair play and justice.

    Even if this is only partially true, it can help explain a lot of cultural differences. Knowledge of Christian history and philosophy can help Japanese adjust to life in the West. However, since I couldn’t find material on the subject that my students would have the time, interest or English skills to read, I did some research and put together a simplified brief history of Christianity and the evolution of modern western institutions.

    I present the material in three sections. The first is an explanation of why its useful which I have posted here. I will follow up in later posts with the other two – a simplified time-chart of Western religions the evolution of modern western culture, and a look at how this background can influence American behavior.

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